Standing Orders need to step up

something i wrote a while ago, but thought i’d publish here – it’s still relevant!

In the depth of the summer recess last year I attended an event organised by Adrian Crompton, the Director of Assembly Business, the event focussed on the consultation that the Assembly was conducting on its Standing Orders. In June 2010 the Business Committee of the National Assembly began a public consultation on the “National Assembly’s ways of working” and the public event brought together Dr. Ruth Fox (Hansard Society), Professor Laura McAllister (University of Liverpool), Adrian Compton (National Assembly for Wales) and Michelle Matheron (Public Affairs Cymru) to discuss some of the issues.

Coming to the event from a relatively well informed position I found the discussion interesting and stimulating. The panellists raised a range of issues including the way in which National Assembly Committees consult with members of the public, private sector companies and public organisations. Indeed, Ms Matheron made the point that more often than not when members of the public or representatives from the voluntary sector are “called to give evidence” it is often an experience more akin to an intensive cross-examination rather than an opportunity to present detailed and accurate, on-the-ground information to a panel of, let’s be honest, generalists, not specialists. Having watched a few Committee sessions in my time I can certainly attest to the “cross-examination” style approach of a number of Committees and Committee Members, who often, depending on the witness (even the term conjures up thoughts of courts, juries and judges) and who or what they represent, can put the witness through the ringer somewhat. A small institution such as the National Assembly for Wales cannot afford to alienate or make it difficult for outside organisations to present information to Committees and consultations – as hardworking as Clerks to Committee are (and I know from working with a number of them that they are incredibly hardworking), they are not on-the-ground, they are not working on the issues every day of every week and so it is up to the Committee Members to get as much information out of “witnesses” as possible, without putting them on the spot, making them feel awkward or uncomfortable. Presenting evidence or information to a Committee of the National Assembly should not be as prescriptive as it currently is and should certainly be encouraged from as wide an audience as possible – not just calling in the usual suspects.

In addition to presenting evidence and consultation exercises, the panel also discussed the quality of scrutiny and of “holding to account” of the Welsh Assembly Government by Members of the National Assembly for Wales. The still-relatively new Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow MP, has become somewhat of a champion of backbenchers and has encouraged them where possible to ask questions, calling on them from the dark recesses of the House of Commons. In the airy, well-lit Siambr this is not really a problem – you can see everyone relatively easily and it is not a MENSA level challenge to recall names and faces in an Assembly of only 60 people (assuming that all of the Members attend). What the panel (with some assistance from the floor) discussed was the quality of Chamber scrutiny of Welsh Ministers and the quality of backbenchers. After the 2011 elections to the National Assembly for Wales it is distinctly possible that a full third of the Assembly Members will be new faces to the Chamber, maybe not for the first time but certainly for the first time in four years. Yes, this will mean that some of the current crop of back-benchers who as such hard-hitting questions of Ministers as “Will you agree with me that XXX sports club / community group / local organisation has done excellently and will you congratulate them and agree to visit them?”. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for Assembly Members championing their constituency or region – that is part of their overall role – but given that the First Minister appears every week for approximately 45 minutes and other Ministers only appear for approximately 30 minutes every four weeks, surely our elected officials can ask more hard-hitting, probing, questioning questions? Is that too much to ask?

This is as much to do with the quality of back-benchers in the Assembly with the age-old problem of how elected representatives from the party of Government hold to account their own Members and Ministers to account. I understand that in small nations and therefore smaller national political parties it could be seen as somewhat “career limiting” to ask probing questions of your boss and his colleagues in such an overtly public display as ministerial question time; but surely, as previous Ministers have said “we have served our apprenticeship” and we should be able to graduate towards a better quality level of scrutiny? As well as a new cohort of Assembly Members entering the Senedd in May I believe that there is a role for Standing Orders to play in increasing the quality and level of scrutiny.

The Committees of the National Assembly for Wales should be able to hold Ministers to account and should be given the time and resources to scrutinise legislation as it passes through the National Assembly. I firmly believe that Minister’s should be compelled under the Assembly’s Standing Orders to appear, when asked, and present, when requested, information to a Committee. A simple formal letter from the Chair of the Committee should be able to call a Minister to a scrutiny session or request a piece of information from the Minister’s office. I do not think that the issue of “what if” should be discussed here, as if it was included in the Assembly’s Standing Orders, the question would not arise – in the same way that Committees can exclude members of the public from proceedings under Standing Order 10.37 (vi), the Chair of the Committee should be able to require an appearance of or a document from a Minister.

Following the election in May all backbench Assembly Members should be encouraged to take part in some form of education programme in relation to the variety of ways they can take part in scrutiny within the National Assembly. This programme should include discussions and information on the tabling of written questions, the tabling of urgent oral questions to Ministers during Plenary sessions, how to best work with the Office of the Presiding Officer, the use of Short Debates and how to develop scrutiny techniques for those nerve-wracking moments in the Chamber during question time. By suggesting this I am not implying that all of the Assembly Members post-May will be incompetent dullards, I am simply suggesting that the work of an elected representatives in a national legislature can be complex and all attempts should be made to support AMs in their work and make sure that they are as effective as possible, for their constituents, party and country.

In addition to some procedural changes that were discussed at the Standing Orders event (including a system referred to as “Zero Hour” where Ministers could be called back to answer questions orally for 5 – 10 minutes if a Member felt they had not answered their question well enough and petitioned the Presiding Officer accordingly; a brilliant system which I think should be in place in the National Assembly for Wales) I think that the use of Statements of Opinion should be reviewed. Currently an Assembly Member can table a Statement of Opinion, perhaps after being lobbied by an external stakeholder group or after an issue has been raised which they believe warrants a formal statement of support, or in some cases, opposition. A relatively simple addition to the Assembly’s Standing Orders could see the Statement debated by the Assembly Member who raised it, the relevant Minister and any Assembly Member who expressed an interest (in the style of a Short Debate) if the Member who raised it managed to secure perhaps 10 or more supporters and then presented a request to the Presiding Officer.

Finally, one of the issues which was conspicuous by its absence at the event discussing the Standing Orders, is the use of business time within the Assembly. I am aware that Members should have constituency days, I fully support that, but I do think that the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday business days could be used more effectively, and still retain the “family friendly hours” which are in place today. Whilst starting the business day at 8.30am and finishing it at 6.30pm may seem like small changes, I think that if this were to be coupled with some or all of the following suggestions there may be able to be more time for backbench debates, non-Government business and extended scrutiny sessions:

Tuesday: 8.30am – 11.00am

  • Committee time
  • Party group meetings
  • Office management time
  • Plenary preparation time

Tuesday: 12.00pm – 6.00pm

  • First Minister’s question time (12.05pm – 1.05pm)
  • Ministerial question time (1.15pm – 2.15pm)
  • Business statement and questions (2.15pm – 3.00pm)
  • Government time, including legislation / reports / statements (3.00pm – 5.45pm)
  • Short Debates / Statements of Opinion debates (5.45pm – 6.15pm)
  • Zero Hour for First Minister / Minister from question time (6.15pm – 6.30pm)

Wednesday: 8.30am – 11.00am

  • Committee time
  • Party group meetings
  • Office management time
  • Plenary preparation time

Wednesday: 12.00pm – 6.00pm

  • Ministerial question time (12.05pm – 1.05pm)
  • Ministerial question time (1.15pm – 2.15pm)
  • Opposition time (2.15pm – 4.15pm)
  • Committee time for debates on reports (4.15pm – 5.45pm)
  • Short Debates / Statements of Opinion debates (5.45pm – 6.15pm)
  • Zero Hour for First Minister / Minister from question time (6.15pm – 6.30pm)

Thursday: 8.30am – 6.30pm

  • Committee time
  • Party group meetings
  • Office management time

In closing I would like to state that this piece was not intended, and I hope that it is not seen like this, as a rant against Assembly Members or a criticism of their intelligence or capability. As with all national governments there are good Ministers, not-so-good Ministers alongside a mix of backbenchers. This article is intended as a spur to the new intake of Assembly Members entering the Assembly in May and perhaps a call on those more experienced AMs to take advantage of their length of service and move away from an “apprentice” style legislature to a confident, hard-hitting and scrutiny capable group of elected officials as soon as possible. Furthermore this piece is intended as a call to the National Assembly for Wales, the Assembly Commission and the Office of the Presiding Officer to see where possible the Standing Orders can be improved, tweaked, amended and made more conducive to quality scrutiny as well as making the broader scrutiny process more accessible to external organisations.

Since I have finished writing this piece the Business Committee have published its report on Standing Orders for the Fourth Assembly i wait with breath much baited to see how it all works out!